Theatre: Ripley tries too hard to subvert

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THE ACTOR John Padden is brilliant at projecting an aura of unsettling ambiguity. As Peter Pan, he was an eerie mix of otherworldly Puck and dangerously irresponsible teenager; As Cis Farringdon in Pinero's Magistrate, he brought a winning, yet faintly macabre subversiveness to a character who thinks he's 14, but is in fact five years older.

Padden's talents for creepy charisma are seen to thrilling effect now in Phyllis Nagy's excellent new stage version of the first of Patricia Highsmith's Mr Ripley novels, where the compelling, sexual ambiguous psychopath is sent, on false pretences, to the Italian Riviera to try to persuade Rickie, the dilettante painter son of a wealthy American businessman, to return home.

Nagy proceeds on the principle that the adapter's job is to illuminate rather than simply illustrate the original. So, instead of just trotting out the plot, she fleshes out the homoerotic subtext in artfully overlapping scenes that play pointed games with spatial and temporal boundaries, and heighten the eeriness of Ripley's assumption of Rickie's identity and wealth.

After his murder, Joseph Millson's Rickie keeps re-emerging, now the co-operative sartorial double of his usurper, behaving like some fantasy projection where homosexuality, narcissism and self-hatred meet. Exuding a queeny, offended fastidiousness, Padden's elegant Ripley superbly shows you the buried burning sense of entitlement in this Boston nobody. He's a better Rickie than Rickie: "I haven't lost you, Rickie. You're just struggling to keep up with me."

A fascinating conjunction of sensibilities, the script bares the strong creative impress of Phyllis Nagy, one of whose plays, Disappeared, has its intriguing affinities with Highsmith. Giles Croft's production fails to do the piece justice, though. With an ugly cyclorama of Rickie's seascape watercolours robbing the human figures of definition, the staging is peculiarly unfocused.

Highsmith's novels have been widely adapted, and it can be only a matter of time before they are translated for the stage into Wol Wantok, the Pacific island Pidgin promoted by that inspired nutter Ken Campbell. Future projects for his Wol Wantok-speaking company are The Front Page and Three Sisters, but for the time being you can spend a hilarious evening at his Pidgin Macbeth at the Piccadilly.

Ordering the evil spirits to come and unsex her, the Pidgin Lady Macbeth cuts the poetic waffle and bellows: "Kam Seten tekem mi hambag." It is amazing how quickly you begin to pick up this Wol Wantok palaver. With the meaning of "hambag" firmly in your grasp, a phrase like "No man kam tru hambag blong woman", is a cinch to translate as "No man of woman born." By the end, normal English begins to sound unnatural.

Assigned roles by audience vote, a delightful cast, wearing penis gourds and little else, deliver the piece with crackpot commitment and many explanatory interruptions from Mr Campbell. The spread of Wol Wantok is his millennial project and I, for one, hope that the dramatic repertory of translated text will swell. My dream would be to see a Pidgin Proust. Come on, Ken. Give us the Wol Wantok A La Recherche.